5 Questions for...Kenneth Fisher, Chairman and CEO, Fisher House Foundation
November 07, 2016
Since the early 1990s, the Fisher House Foundation has supported more than two hundred and seventy-seven thousand families of service members and veterans by providing lodging near VA hospitals and military medical centers where their loved ones are undergoing treatment. The foundation also awards scholarships to children and spouses of service members and veterans, administers the Hero Miles and Hotels for Heroes programs, which use donations of frequent flyer miles and hotel points to provide free airline tickets and hotel rooms to military families, and sponsors the Invictus Games.
Kenneth Fisher has served since 2003 as chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation and is co-chair of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, both of which were founded by his late great-uncle, Zachary Fisher. Ahead of Veterans Day, PND spoke with Fisher about the role of philanthropy in addressing the needs of service members and veterans.
Philanthropy News Digest: Providing support to the families of service members and veterans traveling for medical treatment is a very specific area within the broader scope of veterans issues. What made Zachary Fisher decide to focus on it?
Kenneth Fisher: Everything started with the Intrepid. After Zach completed the conversion of the USS Intrepid to the museum it is today, he wanted to do more. So he called the wife of the then-chief of naval operations, Pauline Trost, who told him a story about the day she was at the Bethesda Naval Hospital [now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center] and saw a family run in, drop their bags in the lobby, and run up to the room to see their loved one. They didn't even think about a hotel. There was no real low-cost alternative to a hotel, there was no real housing on the base for those families, and there was a clear need. And Zach said, "This is my skill set. I know an architect; I've been a developer. I can build a house." And so it was decided that what came to be known as Fisher Houses would be built, on two conditions: First, they had to be free of charge. Second, they had to be within walking distance of a VA or military hospital.
That essentially was the birth of the foundation — one phone call that made Zach aware of a need that wasn't being met. We have a saying in our family that has been passed down over the generations: "Don't be somebody who points out problems — we've got too many of them — be part of the solution." So the roots of the Fisher House Foundation can be traced to that story but also to that philosophy.
PND: Over the last twenty-six years, more than seventy Fisher Houses have opened across the United States and in Germany and the United Kingdom. Has the need for these types of facilities near VA hospitals and military medical centers been fully met over the years? And do you expect demand to grow?
KF: Before 9/11, obviously the needs were different. People in the military aren't only hospitalized when they're wounded in battle — they also get sick or are injured in training accidents. But the need for family lodging was so basic and underappreciated that no one really ever thought about it.
After 9/11, we knew that building one or two Fisher Houses a year was not going to be sufficient. In fact, the first house we built after 9/11 was in Germany, which is usually the first stop for many men and women who are wounded in battle overseas and is where they are stabilized before they're sent home to the United States. But back then I looked at the budget and said, "How the heck are we going to meet the need?" And my answer to that question was to apply a private-sector mindset to the running of the foundation. By that I mean, every dollar would be accounted for. I wanted to know how much of each dollar was going to administration, going to fundraising, and getting to the people who needed the program. I was very focused on running the foundation as efficiently as possible. And as we built more and more houses, we got on the radar of the American public, and people responded in ways that I'd never thought possible. At one point we were building nearly ten houses a year. The program still needs to be ramped up, but I don't want it to grow so fast that we can't keep up with it.
Today, some Fisher Houses are running at 100 percent occupancy rates, some at 80 percent, some a little lower. Will we ever fully meet the need? Who knows? It's a difficult question to answer. I can tell you that if a family can't get into a Fisher House because it's full, we put them up in a hotel through our Hotels for Heroes initiative until a room opens up. Any family that comes into the Fisher House program will be taken care of. And by virtue of the support of the American public and the way the foundation is run, I think we're making a very, very positive impact in meeting that need.
KF: We realized early on that the military and the VA would have to get involved. The way it was set up is that federal land would be deeded to us temporarily, since the house needs to be within walking distance of the hospital and because, as a nonprofit, we can't afford to buy land. We build the house with private funds; we build it faster and cheaper, and with minimum bureaucracy, then we gift it back to the military service branch through a proffer. They assume ownership and, in turn, agree to operate, staff, and maintain the house in perpetuity. Actually, the program is beautiful in its simplicity. But the only way it could have been sustained is through that kind of public-private partnership. To raise money to operate and maintain the houses would be, for us, difficult at best, and given that the houses become part of the hospital, we're not in a position to hire staff.
PND: According to a 2014 poll, more than half the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems, feel disconnected from civilian life, and/or believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation of veterans. Several foundations are focused on providing veterans with accessible, affordable housing, and recently hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen committed $275 million to opening veterans' mental health clinics. What is, or should be, the role of philanthropy in meeting the needs of veterans?
KF: The private sector can do a lot in helping augment or supplement what the government does for veterans. For example, Operation Mend has a foundation set up to cover the cost of plastic surgeries for burn patients. With contributions from six hundred thousand Americans through the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, we've built a state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation center for amputees and burn victims in San Antonio and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence to help treat the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury." It's a fact that there will always be unmet needs. But if you identify an unmet need, it's up to all of us to do what we can to try to ensure that veterans' needs are being met, efficiently and fully. These veterans have earned at least that much — not just this generation of veterans, but the people who fought in earlier wars as well. "Thank you for your service" is nice, but it's just words, not actions; it's not enough.
What the business sector can do is a little different from what foundations and charities can do, limited as they are by their mission statements, issue areas, budget size, and their ability to get the word out about their work. There's so much, for example, that can be done with jobs programs, which many businesses have launched, hiring veterans or, since "corporate speak" and "military speak" can be different, helping them write résumés.
Now that things like jobs, housing for veterans, and mental health issues are finally front and center, I think the private sector is stepping up in important ways to address the needs of veterans. Whether it's a private foundation, a nonprofit, or a corporation, any action taken on behalf of veterans is positive. And you want to make sure there isn't too much redundancy in those efforts. Just throwing money at a problem doesn't always solve the problem. We need to make sure that veterans are truly benefiting from the programs and that the funds going into this area are being used as efficiently as possible. And to do that, you need to sit down with veterans and people in the military and the VA and learn where the needs are greatest and where the gaps and shortfalls are. That way, you can better target funding to a specific need. It's only by asking questions that you can be surgical with your funding and ensure that it makes an impact.
PND: The Fisher House Foundation was established by your great-uncle, who passed on leadership of the foundation to your father, Arnold, who, in turn, passed it on to you. Might there be a time when leadership of the foundation passes to someone who is not a member of the family?
KF: This family will always be a part of the Fisher House Foundation. It's part of our family, of who we are. And it's woken up the younger generation to the fact that we all can make a difference in the world, that we should be as focused on these kinds of issues as we are on our business. We live in a dangerous world, and this won't be the last time we send troops into harm's way. As long as there is a military, there will always be a need for Fisher Houses and our Hero Miles, Hotels for Heroes, and scholarship programs that support the families of service members and veterans. And there's enough interest among the younger Fishers that I'm confident there will be a next generation to pass the foundation on to when I'm ready to do that.